Beauty and the Bean

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 6, 2006

If there were a prize for the most versatile vegetable, the scarlet runner bean would be a serious contender, even though it's hardly a garden staple. It may be best known as a children's plant. Kids are often encouraged to make a tepee out of bean poles and sow scarlet runners at the base of each. This is a great project for a small gardener -- the seeds are easy to plant, quick to sprout and fast-growing. By midsummer, a tent of dark green vines has magically appeared, adorned with clusters of scarlet flowers, a secret hideout of his or her own creation.

Because of its beauty, the plant has caught on in the adult world, too. It makes a gorgeous screen for privacy, for camouflage or as a leafy ceiling over an outdoor seating area. It gratifies almost instantly, while you are waiting the three years it takes for your clematis to ascend, or five for your climbing hydrangea. It doesn't close its blooms on cloudy days the way morning glories do.

If you don't find this scarlet runner bean in the "flower" or "ornamental vine" sections of a seed catalogue, you might check under "hummingbird plants." It's sure to attract these hovering bits of living jewelry, who are drawn to red blossoms. It lures hummingbird moths as well. (These day-fliers buzz while they feed, and are often mistaken for hummingbirds.) Bees are also enticed -- a good thing, since runner beans require their services. Unlike most beans, they are not self-pollinating.

The pollination quirk is not the only thing that sets runners apart. Most vining beans twine counterclockwise around a support (or "anti-clockwise," as the English call it), when viewed from above. Runner beans go clockwise. They also germinate differently, forming their cotyledons (the first leaflike structures to emerge) beneath the soil instead of above. Unlike other garden beans, they are perennial in frost-free climates, forming enlarged tuberous roots. Originally from the mountains of Central America, they were first brought to Spain, then traveled widely. Though related to the familiar pole and bush beans, they constitute their own species, Phaseolus coccineus . The Latin name means "red bean," but not all are scarlet. Some have white flowers, and the bicolored Painted Lady's are red and white. The exquisite Sunset is pale salmon pink.

Most American gardeners don't realize that the runner bean is edible, even though it has long been a culinary favorite in the British Isles. The 1969 Oxford Book of Food Plants described it as "by far the most popular green bean in Britain." There the pods are harvested young, when the seeds are just starting to swell, and cut into short lengths, or "frenched" by slicing them lengthwise. They are then boiled or sauteed and served, deliciously, with bacon or butter. Their flavor is more satisfyingly beany than the standard green bean's, especially in the old-fashioned varieties, although the modern ones tend to have more tender, smooth, stringless pods that hold longer on the vine before they swell.

Runner bean seeds are tasty, too -- and handsome. Those of the classic scarlet runner are purplish-black, streaked with magenta. White-flowering varieties such as Dutch White have white seeds, and the red-orange-flowered Dark Coat's are black. The mature seeds may be eaten fresh, like limas, or dried and stored for baking and making soup in winter. As with all beans, the mature seeds must be cooked to remove toxic properties. Those fleshy roots are said to be poisonous, too, yet one often reads of their use in Central America as a food source. Some process must render them safe and nutritious.

Meanwhile, the roots have another purpose. If you are so inclined, you can dig them up and store them over the winter in a frost-free place, just as you would dahlias, to replant the following spring. Set them out after danger of frost has passed and they will give you an earlier crop of blossoms and pods.

For most gardeners it is simpler just to sow them the way you would sow any bean: in fertile, moist, well-drained soil, rich in organic matter. They'll need something to support them, unless you pinch them back to keep them low-growing, or choose one of the dwarf varieties. All of them flower and form pods better in cool weather, though some are more heat-resistant than others. The widest selection from which to choose is in England's encyclopedic gift to the seed trade, the Thompson & Morgan catalogue ( http://www.thompson-morgan.com/ , 800-274-7333). It lists eight varieties.

It's not too late to poke in a few runner bean seeds if flowers are your goal. These, too, are -- you guessed it -- edible, and if you can imagine a flower tasting lightly beanish, these do. They are splendid as garnishes or in salads. It's quite possible that you already have some growing for your kids, your hummingbirds, or for you, and while you might not have planned it this way, the kitchen awaits them.

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